ATMORE, Ala. – An Alabama inmate received a reprieve from a scheduled lethal injection Thursday after the US Supreme Court ruled the state must let its personal pastor into the death chamber.
The fatal injection of Willie B. Smith III was canceled by Alabama after judges upheld an injunction from the US 11th Court of Appeals stating that he could not be executed without his pastor in the chamber. Corrections Department spokeswoman Samantha Rose said the execution would not proceed in light of the verdict. Alabama has claimed that non-prison personnel should not be in the room for security reasons.
“Willie Smith is sentenced to death and his last wish is to have his pastor with him when he dies,” wrote Judge Elena Kagan in a concluding statement with three other judges.
“Alabama has not borne the burden of showing that the expulsion of all clergymen from the execution chamber is necessary to keep the prison safe. Hence, the State cannot now execute Smith without the presence of its pastor to facilitate what Smith calls the “passage between the worlds of the living and the dead.” “Kagan wrote. Justice Amy Coney Barrett teamed up with three Liberal judges to uphold the decision.
The case was the latest in a series of legal disputes over personal spiritual advisers during executions. The court stopped the execution in 2019 of a Texas inmate who claimed his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual advisor was not allowed to be with him in the death chamber.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a dissent, suggested that states wishing to avoid litigation on the matter “should find a way to allow spiritual counselors into the execution room as other states and the federal government have”.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall did not immediately comment on the decision to cancel the lethal injection. After the execution was canceled, Smith was brought back from the execution chamber from a cell to his cell on death row, a prison spokeswoman said.
Smith, 51, was given a lethal injection in a South Alabama prison for the 1991 murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson in Birmingham.
Smith had tried to let his spiritual advisor, Pastor Robert Wiley, into the execution chamber, which the state does not allow.
“Mr. Smith stated that he believed the transition between life and death was important and that the physical presence of his spiritual advisor at that moment was an integral part of his belief,” Smith’s attorneys wrote in court documents.
In the past, Alabama routinely took a state-employed Christian prison chaplain to the execution chamber to pray with an inmate upon request. The state stopped the practice after a Muslim inmate asked for an imam to be present. The prison system, which did not employ Muslim clergy, said staff outside the prison would not be allowed into the chamber.
Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at an ATM at gunpoint, stole $ 80 from her, and then took her to a cemetery where he shot her in the back of the head. The victim was a police officer’s sister.
“Over twenty-nine years ago, Smith shot and killed a woman whose only crime was stopping using the ATM,” prosecutors wrote on court documents to continue the fatal injection.
The judges cleared another 11th Circle visit related to Smith’s intellectual capacity. His attorneys argued the state had failed to provide assistance with forms affecting the timing of his execution to the man, who has an IQ below 75. The Alabama attorney general denied Smith’s disability in court records calling it a last-minute delay maneuver.
If the execution had gone ahead, it would have been the first in a state in 2021 and one of the few at the state level since the Covid-19 pandemic began last year. No state has been executed since July 8, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.